An intensifying backlash against Xi Jinping’s makeover of China and Donald Trump’s makeover of the United States has muddied thinking about the national identity struggle recently building between the world’s top two powers. What was heralded as the “China Dream,” benefitting from earlier touting of “harmonious” themes, became tarnished as the “China nightmare” of stooping to any means to steal secrets and undermine other states. The long-admired “beacon on the hill” had become sullied as the valueless and selfish “America First” unable to champion democracy or even truth, which was dismissed as “fake news.” The clash in national identities between the two dominant powers on opposite sides of the Pacific is now taking an idiosyncratic form, which challenges us to separate the essence of the struggle likely to be unavoidable for decades ahead from its specific manifestations under the exceptional circumstances of today. Whereas Trump is seen as sui generis, an anomaly that is unlikely to put U.S. values diplomacy at long-run risk, Xi Jinping’s shift from soft power to sharp power appears more sustainable even if there is reason to assume that another effort will be made to raise the profile of Chinese soft power at some point.
If 2017 was the year of mounting obsession with Russian sharp power, 2018 proved to be the year of increasing attention to Chinese sharp power. As the focus expanded from Russia to China, a similar set of questions was being asked: 1) how was sharp power manifested? 2) what are the comparisons between Chinese and Russian sharp power? and 3) what was the United States, cognizant of the experiences of other targets of sharp power, doing in response? The suggested answers have pointed not only to developments in Sino-U.S. relations, but also to some wider implications for the Indo-Pacific region of an ever-deepening values confrontation. As many anticipate a prolonged struggle ahead between the United States and China, steeped in different and clashing national identities, the prospects for Chinese usage of sharp power and of U.S. effectiveness in the advance of values diplomacy should be on people’s minds, but there has been a shift of attention as Trump refused to acknowledge the blatant use of Russian sharp power on the minds of many Americans, let alone to make Chinese sharp power his concern. In the absence of such concern, others have raised alarm about China’s sharp power and warned that Trump’s indifference to advancing U.S. values diplomacy is resulting in a dangerous vacuum.